Great cinema is driven by great ambition. Without ambition, movies wouldn’t exist. Because every project that finds its way into the production stages – even those that don’t turn out right in the end or fail to succeed at the box office – is loaded with ambition: somebody has to pursue the dream that one day this thing will get into a theatre and people will watch it. Almost every picture will have that person somewhere in its midst. It must, otherwise what’s the point?
There are movies made with a different kind of ambition, though. A relentless inner drive that borders on (and often crosses over into) the delusional, the obsessive, the insane… we’re talking about motion pictures that might never have been released if the director had stopped to consider what the hell they were doing for just one single moment. Instead, they ploughed onwards, not letting nothing or nobody get in the way of their extraordinary vision.
Of course, not all ambitious films can be deemed so on just a technical account. There are motion pictures that strive for much more than to just tell a simple story, after all: movies which aim to sum up our very existence as conscious entities, to outline what it means to be a human being, to encompass all of space and time in its entirety… whether or not they succeed is… well, that’s a different matter.
Here we’ve assembled 10 movie projects, each one extremely ambitious in its own way. Be it technically, intellectually, creatively or downrightly impossibly, these are the ones that cost their filmmakers the most sweat and blood. The aim was to encompass a real spectrum of movies from throughout history, the first of which dates all the way back to 1916…
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1. Intolerance (1916) (Dir. D.W. Griffith)
D.W. Griffith is perhaps best associated with his 1915 picture The Birth of the Nation (which also happens to be the first motion picture ever made), but Intolerance, made a year later, is one of the most insanely ambitious projects ever put on to the big screen. At a weary 3 and half hours long, it consists of four distinct stories which take place over a period of 2,500 years (Babylonian, Biblical, Renaissance & Modern), and blends them all together in a frenzy. Take that, Cloud Atlas.
Griffith oversaw the construction of monumental sets, commissioned the making of lavishly-designed costumes, and hired 3,000 extras, all in an attempt to explore themes of intolerance through the ages with the sense of importance he felt it deserved. Adjusted for inflation, Intolerance cost around $46 million to make. Upon release, it was a massive flop: today, it’s rightly considered a classic of the silence era and essential viewing for film historians.Previous Next
2. Battleship Potemkin (1925) (Dir. Sergei Eisenstein)
The sheer scale of Battleship Potemkin rivals that of any film boasting to be an “epic” – it’s an absolutely huge picture, the kind of movie that blockbuster giants like Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer might dream of remaking some day. And Potemkin, the biggest propaganda movie of all-time, has a budget you can see right up there on the screen in every single one of its many, many shots (here’s where we got “montage” from, after all).
Composed of five chronological “chapters” (the most famous of which is known as “The Odessa Steps”), Potemkin is unrelenting in its ambitious force: the crowds are huge, the staged sequences are colossal, and the span is nothing short of breathtaking. But as a picture of ideas as well as one of spectacle, Battleship Potemkin manages to be ambitious in not just one way, but two.Previous Next
3. Metropolis (1927) (Dir. Fritz Lang)
Considered today a pioneering achievement in the science-fiction genre, Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis was plagued with a notoriously troubled production. Lang was said to be an extremely demanding director who would seemingly stop at nothing to get his vision onto film exactly the way he saw it in his head: he would often shoot the simplest of takes hundreds of times.
The construction of Metropolis‘ city is, of course, one of cinema’s most ambitious attempts at creating a world from scratch: this was made possible through extremely complex miniatures built to achieve the vast and intricate nature of its director’s ideas, but Lang’s insistence on using real flames for the film’s most famous sequence (an actor’s dress caught fire as a result), and the fact that production took an entire year to complete, drove his performers mad. Luckily for Lang, the film was lauded as a “technical marvel” upon its release. Job done.Previous Next
4. Gone With The Wind (1939) (Dir. Victor Fleming)
Many people consider Gone With The Wind to be the most ambitious film of them all, and it’s not difficult to see why. The rights for the book alone were purchased for $50,000 (the highest amount paid for such things back then), and the production itself went on for years and years as the right stars were sought out.
As for the story, Gone With The Wind is truly a movie about everything, and might be best-described as being a motion picture about the entirety of life itself. Couple that with several truly astounding sequences, thousands of cast members, and a sense of scope that was unheard of at the time, and Gone With The Wind simply reeks of hard work and dedication. What’s more, it has shown itself to be a timeless picture that genuinely deserved its lavish adaptation – despite the obvious reservations one might’ve had at the time.Previous Next
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s most famous movie doesn’t beat around the bush: its opening scene is one of the most ambitious beginnings of any film ever, taking its place at the “Dawn of Man” where the director starts out by exploring the origins of man and his tool. After this, Kubrick jumps several thousands of years into the future (in perhaps the best cut ever committed to celluloid) and will eventually use his movie to go even further than that – into the future.
There was no movie quite like 2001: A Space Odyssey before 1968 and there hasn’t been one since. For Kubrick, whose vision extended from the mere beginnings of life to the very edges of the universe, 2001 emerged a genuine marvel of the cinema, unbeaten in scope and execution, and a movie that still defies a label to this very day.
There are so many ideas packed in its 142 minute running time, but 2001′s major achievement is in its bold questioning of human nature itself: who are we and why are why? Kubrick reportedly involved himself in every single aspect of production, even selecting the fabric to be used on each of his character’s costumes. The lengths that the director went to to achieve the film’s amazing visual effects have also become legendary, including the construction of a giant rotating “ferris wheel” to suggest space travel. It’s been said that the best films focus on even the tiniest details: 2001 is the ultimate testament to such a comment.Previous Next
6. Heaven’s Gate (1980) (Dir. Michael Cimino)
After the success of The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino became the toast of the Hollywood scene. Everybody wanted to get in on his next film, and so United Artists agreed to fund the young director’s dream project: a western called Heaven’s Gate. Though Cimino’s visions and talent were sound, his ego was an incredibly dangerous factor that United Artists could have never prepared themselves for: Michael Cimano actually destroyed the studio.
So dedicated to his vision was Cimino, that he’d frequently defy United Artists at every turn. The budget soared from $7.5 million to $36 million when he insisted on everything in the movie looking exactly as it did during the period it was set. He would wait hours to get the “perfect shot”, even if it meant sitting by randomly until a certain cloud appeared in the sky. Somehow the entire project got away from United Artists until they could just sit by and wait for the results: Cimino wouldn’t even let the people who paid for it view the finished film until opening night.
The film was a critical bomb, a motion picture that Roger Ebert called “the most scandalous cinematic waste.” UA was forced to close down as a result of the madness. Nowadays, Heaven’s Gate has found itself somewhat reappraised, with many critics calling it a lost masterpiece. But this is the flick that ended the auteur-driven 70s. Studios would never trust directors in the same way again. Cinimo’s ambition got the better of him. Still, for all his shortcomings, the man had one hell of a vision – the film remains one of most visually stunning pictures you’ll ever see.Previous Next
7. Fitzcarraldo (1982) (Dir. Werner Herzog)
The story behind Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo is just as fascinating as the movie itself: loosely based on true events, it concerns an obsessive opera lover who attempts to haul a steamship over a mountain. Today, such things could be easily achieved with the aid of CGI, but to do this back in 1982, Herzog and his team actually had to accomplish this seemingly impossible task in the midst of the Peruvian jungle.
Herzog, surely one of cinema’s all-time great figures, (and in a great show of life imitating art) became just as obsessed as his titular character in his attempts to move the huge ship to its destination. The production was plagued with an endless amount of problems, the worst of which saw Herzog at odds with his leading man Klaus Kinski, whose temper and argumentative nature threatened to derail proceedings. At one point, Herzog reported, a native tribesman offered to murder Kinski for him. Herzog declined, but purely because he needed Kinski to finish the film. But Herzog achieved his goal, and his relentless (and slightly maddening) ambition prevailed: the final film is a truly stunning and visionary slice of cinematic heaven.Previous Next
8. The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) (Dir. Peter Jackson)
How Peter Jackson ever got organised enough to begin production on three movies at once is perplexing to say the least, but to do such a thing in a fictional world where every bowl, helmet, sword, house, and item of clothing would have to be created from scratch… well, that’s ambition of a whole different kind. The Lord of the Rings is one of the best movie trilogies of all-time, composed of three sensational entries, each of which are crafted with an intricate emphasis on both details and depth.
The entire project took 4 years to film and was produced on a gargantuan budget of $285 million. Should it have failed, this ordeal would no doubt have come to be known as one of the cinema’s greatest blunders. But the world came out in their millions to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of Jackson’s wonderful creation. Not to skimp out when it comes to home releases either, Jackson’s DVD/Blu-ray versions of these movies are perhaps, too, the most ambitious of their kind: the bonus features are truly epic, including a making of documentary that spans almost twenty hours and covers every aspect of production.Previous Next
9. The Tree of Life (2011) (Dir. Terrence Malick)
Say what you will about Terrence Malick’s fifth film, but The Tree of Life is a remarkable piece of work with a lot to offer those who are prepared to get past its tricky narrative structure. Pretentious? Most definitely. Special? More definitely. Ultimately, this is an experience you’ll either relish or despise, but there’s no denying the massively ambitious nature of Malick’s mind-boggling film. It is unlike anything else.
A largely difficult movie in many respects, The Tree of Life attempts to condense the entire spectrum of life into just over two hours – and does so through a collection of beautifully-rendered sequences existing to show the origins of our planet, and through the story of one boy’s childhood and the relationship he shares with his father. The span is incredible, the visuals are breathtaking… what does it mean exactly? Does it matter much? Love or loathe Malick, The Tree of Life is nothing ever short of ambitious. Not for a single solitary scene.Previous Next
10. Cloud Atlas (2012) (Dir. Lana & Andy Wachowski/Tom Tykwer)
Cloud Atlas has been cited as the most ambitious movie to come our way in a long, long time. And when you start to delve into its source material, you wonder how it ever got the film treatment in the first place. Based on a novel by British author David Mitchell (which was toted as “unfilmable”), Cloud Atlas tells six stories across the span of time, each one told as a story from one person to the next. It’s a seriously complex and ambitious work in itself, and that’s just in novel form.
Cloud Atlas manages to exist as a movie mainly through the dedication of its directors, The Wachowskis, who even put their own money up to keep the production going – this isn’t a franchise with an already established fanbase, remember. The results were mixed, but many critics believe it to be one of the greatest (and bravest) cinematic endeavors ever untaken. It shouldn’t work – having actors playing different characters across the span of time is certainly an eyebrow-raising idea – but somehow it does. It’s ridiculous and bizarre, but it’s also bold and brilliant. Without a doubt, Cloud Atlas is absolutely the most ambitious film of the 21st century so far. You owe yourself at least one viewing.
Honorable mentions: Ben Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963), Apocalypse Now (1979), Waterworld (1995), Titanic (1997), Team America: World Police (2004), Avatar (2009)
Do you agree? Which insanely ambitious movie projects have we missed out? Let us know in the comments section below.Previous